Huge no-fishing zones 'offer only hope' of saving marine ecosystem from disaster

Posted: 8 December 2004

Author: Michael McCarthy

It has been invisible, so it has gone largely unheeded, but the wrecking of the seas is now the world's gravest environmental problem after climate change, British scientists said yesterday.

Herring fishing in the Baltic Sea. © Greenpeace/NoelMatoff
Herring fishing in the Baltic Sea. © Greenpeace/NoelMatoff
Herring fishing in the Baltic Sea.© Greenpeace/NoelMatoff
Such destruction has been caused by over-fishing in the marine environment and only massive protected zones, where all fishing is banned, will allow the sea's damaged areas to recover, members of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said.

These non-fishing reserves should cover fully 30 per cent of UK territorial waters, the commission suggested, in the most drastic call ever made to scale back fishing in Britain or Europe. The proposals were welcomed by environmentalists, but attacked by some fishing industry groups, who said they would threaten yet more livelihoods, and that recovery measures have already been taken.

But the commission, representing some of the country's most senior environmental scientists, was insistent. It is not just the question of plunging fish stocks, critical though many of these are, it said in a new report; rather, the concern is for the whole marine ecosystem, with seabirds, dolphins and porpoises killed in their thousands, smaller marine organisms wiped out and the seabed comprehensively destroyed by trawling over vast distances.

Threatened ecosystems

The report, Turning The Tide, calls on people and policymakers everywhere to recognise for the first time the real scale and true nature of the problem: that decades of competitive fishing have put the whole marine ecosystem under siege. The central point is that it is the ecosystem, and not just threatened individual fish stocks, such as cod or haddock, that needs looking after.

The commission's members call for a simple but profound policy change: the "presumption in favour of fishing" should be reversed. Until now, fishing has been allowed anywhere unless the regulating authorities can demonstrate that harm is being done to ecosystems or habitats.

But this has not prevented severe ecosystem damage, the commission reports, saying that it should be for fishing interests to demonstrate that their activities will not cause harm. There should be spatial planning in the sea just as there is on land, it says.

Sir Tom Blundell, the commission's chairman and a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, said: "It is hard to imagine that we would tolerate a similar scale of destruction on land, but because it happens at sea, the damage is largely hidden. On land, we have had a planning system for over 50 years to ... set aside areas for protection. Unless similar steps are taken at sea to allow recovery from decades of intensive fishing, species may disappear and the ecosystem itself be put in danger."

Falling fish stocks

The report concludes that fishing is a threat to our seas, not only around the UK, but globally, and sets out a litany of the destruction that has been caused. Populations of more than 40 per cent of commercial fish species in the north-east Atlantic and neighbouring seas are below sustainable limits. Large quantities of unmarketable fish - in some cases up to 50 per cent of the catch - are discarded at sea.

Common Dolphin washed up on oarmill Cove Beach, Devon, England. © Greenpeace/Greig
Common Dolphin washed up on oarmill Cove Beach, Devon, England. © Greenpeace/Greig
Child studies a dead Common Dolphin washed up on oarmill Cove Beach, Devon, in the west of England. It is estimated about 4000 dolphins and porpoises per year may die in mid water trawl fishing nets in this region, amounting to 5 per cent of their population. © Greenpeace/Greig
Thousands of seabirds and marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises are killed, getting tangled and drowning, in nets or caught on the hooks of "long-line" fishing gear.

The seabed has been destroyed over vast areas in the North Sea and other seas, and the myriad organisms that live there wiped out by beam-trawling, in which heavy gear is dragged along the bottom. Substantial marine nature reserves, off-limits to fishing boats, must now be the way out, the commission says. Britain is committed to setting up marine reserves over the next decade, but the call for 30 per cent of UK waters to be so dedicated is the first time anyone has put a precise number on the project.

Euan Dunn, the head of marine policy at the RSPB, said: "What the Royal Commission has done is to sharpen the debate by suggesting what size this network should be."

Sir Tom said that around the world there was evidence that creating marine reserves led to a several-fold increase in the size of fish, shellfish and other animals in a relatively few years. Commission members said implementing their recommendations would clearly lead to a further shrinkage of activity in UK fishing communities.

George McRae, the secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said: "There are 20,000 kilometres of oil pipelines in the North Sea and on top of that there are oil platforms and rigs and all sorts of legitimate industrial activity, which have had a huge impact on the environment. I haven't heard any suggestion that these should be curtailed in any way."

Commission members accept that their recommendations are one thing, but getting them agreed by the European Commission in Brussels, where they would have to be implemented, is quite another. Commission member Professor Paul Ekins said: "We hope that it will not be necessary for there to be a complete collapse of fish stocks for someone to recognise that something radical needs to be done."

Our dying sea

Royal commission warns of a marine 'catastrophe' and calls for a ban on all fishing in one third of British waters.

North Sea cod. Credit: CEFAS.
North Sea cod. Credit: CEFAS.
THE DISAPPEARING CODThe fish that once sustained fishing communities in such places as Grimsby and Fraserburgh has now almost disappeared from the North Sea, as it has done from many parts of the north Atlantic. It is the most extreme example of a pattern: according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), the proportion of north-east Atlantic fish stocks within safe biological limits fell from 26 per cent to 16 per cent from 1996 to 2001. In the North Sea, the minimum recommended stock size to sustain cod at an acceptable level is 150,000 tons; it is now at about 46,000 tons. In the Irish Sea, the figure is as bad - 5,200 tons compared with a recommended level of 10,000. The west of Scotland and the north Atlantic are at similar levels. Ices says there should be no cod fishing in these areas next year.

HAKEThe hake stock of the southern part of the North Sea is estimated to be at a low of 10,200 tons, compared with a minimum recommended level of 35,000 tons. This is largely because of overfishing by Spanish trawlers to satisfy huge domestic demand, and continues a 20-year decline of what was once a common species. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends that there should be no hake fishing next year.

PLAICELike cod, plaice is a staple of the British diet that may soon become a rare and expensive luxury. The current stock in the North Sea is estimated to be around 190,000 tons, below the minimum level of 230,000. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has advised that the level of fishing must be reduced by a total of 55 per cent to help stocks recover.

MAMMALSMany thousands of dolphins and porpoises are caught accidentally every year in the nets of European boats, to judge from the hundreds of animals washed up on French and British coasts, thought to be only a small fraction of the true total. The practice of pair-trawling - use of a colossal net by two boats working together - by the French winter seabass fishery is thought to take a heavy toll.

DISCARDSOne of the most environmentally damaging and wasteful aspects of fishing is that huge numbers of fish are thrown back dead into the sea after capture, because they are the wrong size or for other reasons.

The European Commission has estimated that discards may account for nearly 70 per cent of fish mortality in some species and locations, and the problem poses a serious threat to fish conservation.

SEABIRDSThousands of seabirds are killed in fishing operations every year, often by "long-liner" boats, which send out lines of baited hooks which can be up to 22 miles long. This technique is having a catastrophic effect on the albatross populations of the Southern Ocean, threatening some species of albatross which mate for life with extinction. But it also causes wide mortality in Europe, with large numbers of fulmars (seabirds which occur widely in Britain) being caught annually by long-liner boats from Norway.

Reef before trawling, Australia. Photo: CSIRO/BBCReef before trawling....

Reef after trawling. Photo: CSIRO/BBC

....and after trawling, Australia.© CSIRO/BBC


Underwater photographs, right, show the condition of the seabed before and after bottom-trawling. The result is clearly atrocious. Bottom-trawling can plough furrows up to 20ft wide and 6ins deep across the seabed, which destroys the rich, complex bottom-dwelling life. Some areas are trawled this way five times a year, turned over much more than arable fields, and afterwards they look as desolate as the surface of the moon. Large parts of the North Sea have suffered badly.

FOOD CHAINCommercial fishing is thought to have killed 90 per cent of larger, predator fish. Severe overfishing of the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland, which collapsed in 1992, caused a shift in the ecosystem which means numbers never recover, even when fishing is banned.

Michael McCarthy is the environment editor for The Independent.

Copyright © The Independent. The above material first appeared in the The Independent and is reproduced with kind permission.

Related links:

Read the report: Turning the Tide

From our website, see:

News: Marine parks can solve global fish crisis, experts say

Feature: Other fish in the sea, but for how long?

Feature: IUCN calls for better ocean governance